KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – At around 7:27 Monday morning, a steam line within the Eastman Chemical Company’s Kingsport site failed, injuring five workers and sending unknown material across a nearby neighborhood as the line continued to vent high-pressure steam nearby.
At 8:52 a.m., an hour and 25 minutes later, the company’s first advisory was released to the media:
The morning of Monday, January 31, at approximately 7:30 a.m.. Eastman experienced a high pressure steam line failure at our Kingsport manufacturing site resulting in vibrations that were felt by the surrounding community and loud noises from a consistent heavy release of steam. Eastman’s Fire Department is assessing the situation with assistance from Kingsport Fire Department. We are working to gather more details and will provide more information as quickly as possible.Eastman Chemical Company, 8:53 a.m. Monday morning.
Later that day as more details became available, Eastman representatives updated their public-facing information, adding that five employees had received “minor” injuries in the blast, and that no fire had occurred within the facility.
“The steam line failure that resulted in loud noises and vibrations also caused the release of small particle debris that can occur with utility line disruptions,” a press release stated at 10:05 a.m. “This may be seen in the immediate community near the site.”
The material found raining throughout the Green Acres neighborhood, roughly 1,000 feet from the Northeastern edge of the facility, had laid a layer of dust and debris across multiple blocks in the area.
“There’s been a lot of misinformation on social media today, and we wanted to make sure that we shared correct information about what happened in today’s event,” Director of Corporate Communications Betty Payne stated in a press briefing around 3 p.m. Monday afternoon. “First of all, the loud noise and steam were caused by a high-pressure steam line failure, there were five injuries reported and we are thankful that all have been treated and released. The debris that has resulted from this incident is currently being lab tested by our folks here at Eastman, we are also sending it off-site for third-party lab analysis. It’ll take some time for us to get those results, and we’ll share those with you when we get them.”
While the exact makeup of the material was unknown at the time, Eastman representatives stated they did not expect an impact on their immediate neighbors. In Monday’s press conference, it was confirmed that on-site employees were asked to shelter in their operations areas. Outside the facility, no warnings aside from first responder sirens were given to residents across the street.
“We did not issue a community shelter in place, as there was no danger to the surrounding community,” Payne said in the briefing. “We do not use sirens on-site any longer to notify the community, anyone in the surrounding area should ensure that they are signed up to receive Reverse 911 notifications from the city of Kingsport.”
The Kingsport/Sullivan County Reverse 911 system, which replaced the former siren system utilized on-site at Eastman, allows members of the community to opt-in for alerts that affect the public. The system requires a signup by the resident in the area for mobile devices, rather than automatic inclusion in the vein of federal weather messaging and AMBER alerts.
Landline telephones are automatically registered for the system, according to Kingsport Police Department Deputy Chief Jason Bellamy.
“There was not a notification [that] went out because there was not concern for the community,” Payne said.
Bellamy said the system is vital to keeping Kingsport residents safe and informed.
“Be aware that it’s there, sign up,” Bellamy said. “If you receive those calls, be sure to pick up and hear what’s on the other end of that so you can learn how you’re being impacted.”
The material initially described as “debris that can occur with utility line disruptions” was later evaluated and found to contain asbestos, a material classified as a “well recognized health hazard” by OSHA and the EPA.
“We would definitely encourage our community members not to speculate on what the source of that is,” VP of Operations Excellence and Transformation Michelle Caveness said prior to evaluation of the material. “But there is a phone number that we would encourage our community team members to call.”
At the time of the conference, the line in question, 229-CARES, told residents of affected areas that they were eligible for a free car wash from Ultimate Shine locations throughout Kingsport. As of 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Ultimate Shine staff said the tickets are still eligible for use. The Eastman Community Cares line does not mention the tickets after a 10:50 p.m. update Monday.
At 10:50 Monday night, a final advisory was released for the day, stating that “at least some of the material damaged in the event contained asbestos.”
Out of an abundance of caution, the release stated that any debris found would be treated as though it does contain asbestos until tested. Tuesday morning, Eastman crews were spotted taping off residences as they cleaned the debris from the area. Residents were asked to leave cleaning to equipped crews as they swept the area between Lincoln Road, John B. Dennis Highway and the Eastman Road overpass.